Surviving breast cancer in Nigeria is not just a difficult mission, it is nearly impossible. This is primarily because healthcare facilities in the country are lacking in both the necessary equipment and the required specialists to provide the needed care.
However, Ms Abisayo Fakiyesi, a two-time breast cancer survivor believes that being diagnosed with the disease should not be seen as a journey to the valley of death, despite the poor state of the nation’s health sector. She shares her harrowing battle against the dreaded disease with ANGELA ONWUZOO.
In February 2015, Abisayo Fakiyesi woke up from sleep one morning and saw bloodstains on her wrapper. Having seen her period a few days before the incident, she wondered where the bloodstain came from and finally traced it to the nipple of her left breast.
Despite her concerns, the Ondo State indigene carried out her routine activities that morning and thereafter padded the bleeding nipple with a piece of cloth before going to work.
The Digital Advert Specialist with one of the foremost newspaper companies in Nigeria never suspected that breast cancer was lurking around the corner.
Although her mother had died of breast cancer at the age of 53 when she was 15 years old, breast cancer had never crossed the mind of Abisayo because she was just 23 and assumed that she was too young to come down with the dreaded disease.
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Sharing her experience with PUNCH HealthWise, the two-time breast cancer survivor said she was able to defeat the deadly disease through the overwhelming support she received from her company, friends, some family members and good-spirited individuals, whom she said came to her rescue immediately she cried out for help.
She narrated, “I woke up one morning in February 2015 and saw a bloodstain on my wrapper. I was surprised because it hasn’t been long since I saw my menses.
“I was wondering where the bloodstain came from; so I traced it to my left nipple. When I was going to work, I looked for a piece of cloth to cover the nipple so that the blood would not stain my dress.
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“When I got to the office, I told my Head of Department then about my experience and she asked me to go to the hospital the next day.
“So, I went to a private hospital in Surulere that my mother had used to use before she passed away at the age of 53 after a long battle with breast cancer. She died many years ago when I was 15 years old.
“Actually, my mother had breast cancer twice but couldn’t survive the second attack. So, when I got to the hospital, they ran several tests on me. One particular afternoon, they called me to come and pick up my result.
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Diagnosed with breast cancer at 23
“When I got there, the doctor that I met told me that it was breast cancer. But I told him that I can’t have breast cancer at the age of 23. So, I went to the owner of the hospital to see him about what one of his doctors told me.
“But when I saw his mood and the way he was consoling me, I knew that something was wrong.”
Not satisfied with the result, Abisayo decided to seek a second opinion, considering the fact that being diagnosed with breast cancer comes with pain, stigma and grief, citing her mother’s experience.
“I decided to seek a second opinion. So I went to the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, Ikeja, and the oncologist that I met requested that I do a repeat test at another hospital, which I did, and the result came back positive.
“The oncologist told me point blank that it was breast cancer and that it was at stage zero.
“She told me that the best thing for me to do was to cut off the breast before it spread. But I refused; I told her that God was going to heal me.
“So, I started going from one prayer house to another, searching for healing,” she recounted.
After several visits to different churches for healing, it dawned on Abisayo that God also brings healing to the sick by using health professionals to execute His plans.
The dark beautiful lady decided to return to her doctor at LASUTH for treatment.
She went on, “One day, in one of the churches that I visited, I heard a voice that said to me “I have given you all that you need to survive, why waste time?” At that point, I stopped going to prayer houses and went back to my doctor.
“When the doctor saw me, she wondered why I came back since I said earlier that God was going to heal me. So, she booked me for surgery which was done in September 2015 and the whole left breast was removed.
“The surgery (mastectomy) was successful. After the surgery, I was told to heal for about a month and thereafter, I was sent for radiotherapy.
“I wasn’t sent for chemotherapy because the cancer was at stage zero according to the doctor.
Only two radiotherapy machines working in Nigeria
“But when I was looking for where to do the radiotherapy in October 2015, I found out that the only two radiotherapy machines that were working in the country were fully booked.
“One was at Eko Hospital, Lagos, and the second one was at the University College Hospital, Ibadan.
“When I visited the two, they said they had no space and gave me a slot for April 2016 to have my radiotherapy done. The cost of radiotherapy then was over N300,000.
“But I couldn’t wait till April 2016, so I met with my godmother, Mrs. Angela Emuwa, and discussed my plight with her and she suggested I go to India.
“My doctor also suggested the same. So, the company that I work for supported me; my godmother supported me with a flight ticket. A few family members also gave me their financial support. In December 2015, I went to India.”
Surprisingly, when Abisayo got to India, the recommended six radiotherapy sessions were no longer needed as the pet scan revealed that she didn’t have anything cancerous around her lungs.
She said, “When I got to India, I was booked for a PET scan. We didn’t have a PET scan machine in Nigeria in 2015 and I am not sure if we have it now. So, when the PET scan was done and the result came out, the Indian doctor told me that I did not need radiotherapy. He said I only needed hormonal therapy.
Breast reconstruction done
“At that point, I decided to use the money I had raised for my radiotherapy to do a breast reconstruction since I was young and not married.
“So, I did an implant which came out beautifully and well, and my confidence, thereafter, increased. From that moment, everything was going on well with me, even after several checkups.”
Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans, according to Cleveland Clinic, detect early signs of cancer, heart disease and brain disorders.
Diagnosed again with breast cancer in 2018
But like thunder, cancer struck Abisayo’s left breast again in 2018, and this pushed her to the brink of suicide.
“In February 2018, I was preparing for my wedding and it was three weeks to my introduction. So, one morning, I was bathing and I felt about five to six lumps around the reconstructed breast. I was wondering what was happening.
“For two weeks, I was applying anointing oil on them and when there was no improvement, I called my doctor and she said I should get a breast scan done. I did the scan at Mecure Diagnostic Centre, Oshodi, and the result showed that the lumps were cancerous.
“Having been through the journey before, I was devastated. I cried from Mecure to my house in Ogun State after the result was handed over to me. Passengers in the bus that I boarded were consoling me, thinking I had lost my money.
“When I got home, I called my doctor and told her about the result and she asked me to see her the following week. When I saw her, she told me it was cancer and booked me for surgery in March 2018. She said the surgery had to be done immediately since it was recurring breast cancer.
“So, they cut off the reconstructed breast and I was told it was stage two breast cancer. At that point, the oncologist told me that I was going to go through eight sessions of chemotherapy,” she said.
Chemotherapy hell from start to finish
According to Abisayo, going through chemotherapy appears to be more traumatic than the financial burden of managing the disease.
She explained, “Going through chemotherapy was hell from start to finish. The side effects were terrible. I was so depressed because, after each session of chemotherapy, the effect lasts up to one week. I had hair and memory loss, besides weight loss.
“After my chemotherapy at LASUTH, I was told to go for radiotherapy at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Idi-Araba.
“At LUTH, I had 15 sessions of radiotherapy done, after which my doctor requested that I run some tests for her to be sure that the radiotherapy worked.
“After the result came out, I was told they saw something that looked cancerous around my lungs and I asked how they would still see something cancerous after two surgeries, eight sessions of chemotherapy and 15 sessions of radiotherapy.
“The oncologist said I had to do another six sessions of chemotherapy and each session cost over N400,000.”
The high cost of cancer treatment almost pushed Abisayo to take her own life, after feeling that there was no hope of raising money for treatment anymore.
“Considering my experience with the first eight sessions of chemotherapy, I told the doctor that I was not ready to undergo the six sessions. So, I left the hospital weeping and wondering where and how I would be able to raise N400,000 for each session of chemotherapy, with the huge resources that had gone in already, let alone the side effects.
“So, when I got home, after some suicidal thoughts, I decided to end it all because I was bankrupt and my company had done a lot for me. I had taken out a loan for treatment during my first battle with cancer in 2015 which I was yet to repay. Since I didn’t know where else to get help, I went to buy an insecticide to commit suicide.
“As I was about to take the insecticide, the memory of my autistic sister came to my head. I was the one taking care of her, so I then asked myself, if I should die now, who will take care of her? My father is not working and does not have the financial capacity to take care of her. We are just two from my mother, though I have step-siblings.
“At that point, I changed my mind and dropped the insecticide. Then, I prayed to God not to allow me to die a painful death from breast cancer because I had been through a lot already,” Abisayo recalled.
Continuing, she said, “When I overcame the suicide attempt, I went back to see my doctor in LASUTH. When I told her about my experience in LUTH, she said my body was traumatised already and that I did not require another session of chemotherapy.
“She suggested I go to India to do a PET scan and find out what the problem was. But the money to travel out became a problem.
“So, I came out on my Instagram and Facebook pages to solicit funds from members of the public. My friends also posted it on their social media handles. With that approach and also with support from my company, I was able to raise money to travel to India to do a PET scan.
“When I did the PET scan, to the glory of God, nothing cancerous was seen around my lungs.
“What the scan only picked was an incomplete surgery, known as axillary clearance, and the surgery costs between three to four thousand US dollars.”
According to experts, axillary clearance or axillary dissection is a surgery to remove all the lymph nodes from the armpit on the same side as breast cancer. It is, according to them, a very effective procedure to evaluate and check the spread of cancer.
Determined to live, Abisayo vowed never to give up as she went public again to seek help, which is the reason why she is alive today to tell her story.
Determined to fight on
“So, I came out again on my social media handles to beg for help in order to have the axillary clearance done. I was so shocked at the way and manner in which people, including my company, supported me and raised the money for me within five days.
“The surgery was done at the end of February 2020 and I came back in March and since then, everything has been fine with me.
“I have been going for a check-up and the result has been fine,” she noted.
Though Abisayo is cheerful sharing her experience after defeating the degenerative disease, the stigma, depression and rejection that she suffered were better imagined than experienced.
Battling breast cancer consumed the marriage introduction of the University of Lagos graduate of Political Science.
She further narrated, “As I said earlier, in February 2018, I was preparing for my wedding and it was three weeks to my introduction when I was diagnosed with breast cancer the second time.
Marriage introduction cancelled
“So, when I collected the result and saw that it was another breast cancer, I invited my fiancé after the close of work to tell him about it. But when I informed him, he was unhappy. After minutes of discussion, he left me at the bus stop. He took a bus and left, although he was aware of my first battle with breast cancer in 2015.
“When I got home, I called him but he refused to pick my call. After trying for several days and he still refused to pick my calls, I used a friend’s line to call him and he picked.
“When I asked him why he had refused to pick my calls, he didn’t give me a genuine reason and the next day he sent me a WhatsApp message that his family had asked him to call off the wedding and that was how the relationship ended. We had courted for over eight months.”
Abisayo is the Creator of the “survivor_ Iyanu” breast cancer awareness and healthy living page on Instagram.
She advises women battling breast cancer to speak out and seek help and to also go for treatment.
For the survivors, she urges them to be happy and accept their fate.
Every October marks Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a national campaign to raise awareness for this cause.
According to the World Health Organisation, breast cancer has overtaken lung cancer as the most common form of the disease, accounting for nearly 12 per cent of new cases each year worldwide.
“Among women, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer and the leading cause of cancer death worldwide.
“Obesity in women is a common risk factor in breast cancer, and is also driving overall cancer numbers,” WHO says.
Lack of finance for treatment killing cancer patients
A Professor of Radiation Medicine, College of Medicine, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Ifeoma Okoye, told PUNCH HealthWise that one out of every five persons living with cancer dies in Nigeria.
Okoye blamed the death on the late presentation and inability of patients to access specialist care due to financial constraints.
The cancer specialist said, “After detection, patients find it difficult to access specialist care because of the limited number of treatment centres within the country and also due to out-of-pocket payment of crippling medical bills.
“Little wonder that Nigeria has one of the worst cancer death statistics globally and in Africa.”
In terms of death rates for cancer patients in Nigeria, Okoye said, “One out of every five persons with cancer dies due to late detection and lack of planned and structured screening programmes.”
Okoye, who is the founding director of the University of Nigeria Centre for Clinical Trial, also identified procrastination, stigmatisation and abandonment by family, especially “spousal rejection” as other factors fuelling cancer deaths in Nigeria.
To reverse the trend, the oncologist recommended a shift of focus from what she described as sick care to preventive care, in addition to improved early detection through massive awareness creation on the importance of regular screening.
“For breast cancer, they should practise a regular self-breast examination two to three days after their period,” she said.